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Backpacker Magazine – May 1998

Go Now! The Wilderness Life List

The 10 once-in-a-lifetime adventures any backwoods fanatic should have under his hipbelt before hanging up the ol' pack.

by: Robert Rubin

Where Else To Get Your Fix You don't set off to see the northern lights the way you set off to climb a mountain or run a rapid. It is a gift, unexpected and treasured. Still, you can increase your odds by traveling north in the fall when the nights are getting deeper, by getting away from the urban lights, and by looking up.

Isle Royale National Park: An island out in Lake Superior, it is miles from city lights and offers wolves, moose, and some of the darkest night skies anywhere. Contact: Isle Royale National Park, 800 E. Lakeshore Dr., Houghton, MI 49931; (906) 482-0984;

Glacier National Park: Rugged, beautiful peaks as a backdrop for all that Montana big sky makes Glacier a prime spot for sky watching. Contact: Glacier National Park, P.O. Box 128, West Glacier, MT 59936; (406) 888-5441;

Kluane National Park: A lot of wide-open tundra and mountain ridges make the sky in this Canadian national park seem as close as the glaciers. Contact: Kluane National Park, Box 5495, Haines Junction, YT, Canada Y0B 1L0; (403) 634-2251;

Iinch to the edge of the canyon wall and look down. Two hundred feet below, the river swirls, transparent as air, tinted the bright, surreal blue of water in a dream. Above, crags of naked gray limestone brush against the clouds. In this narrow, unnamed valley 60 miles north of the Arctic Circle and deep in the Brooks Range, the only trails belong to the caribou. This secret place isn't found in any guidebook. Slip and fall 1,000 feet and only the ravens will know.

This is backpacking reduced to its most essential. The absence of any sort of safety nets-signs, rangers, campgrounds, other humans-stirs feral instincts I'd forgotten. I find myself focusing on flickers of movement, subtle variations of terrain, the angle of the sun. It's just me and the vast, trackless land.

I move on, clambering across gullies so steep I sometimes lower my pack with rope. At the bottom of one ravine, scattered bones and wolf scat mark a kill. Taking off my boots, I ford a knee-deep icewater sluice, one of a dozen I'll cross.

As the summer twilight deepens, I unfold my topo on a pinnacle carpeted with tundra flowers. Deciphering brown contour lines, I discover I've come 8 hard miles. Enough for today. Except for the rush of wind and water, the silence is complete.

Contact: Gates of the Arctic National Park, P.O. Box 26030, Bettles, AK 99726; (907) 692-5494.

Where Else To Get Your Fix Alaska is an obvious choice for exploring untracked wilderness; here are three in the Lower 48.

The Bob Marshall Wilderness Area: Montana mountain country on a grand scale, complete with big predators. Contact: Flathead N.F., 1935 Third Ave. E, Kalispell, MT 59901; (406) 755-5401; and Lewis and Clark N.F., Box 869, 1101 15th St. N., Great Falls, MT 59403; (406) 791-7700.

Allagash Wilderness: Hone your long-distance canoeing skills in pristine wilderness. Contact: Bureau of Parks and Land, 106 Hogan Rd., Bangor, ME 04401; (207) 941-4014.

Marble Mountain Wilderness: More than 200,000 acres with plenty of untracked territory. Contact: Klamath N.F., 1312 Fairlane Rd., Yreka, CA 96097; (916) 842-6131.

The first time I witnessed "hiker's envy" I was paddling beneath some low cliffs along Michigan's Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. The July day was calm and quiet. Lake Superior was heaving gently against the iron-colored sandstone. Near shore the water was so clear I could make out the contours of boulders a dozen feet down.

Then I heard people talking above me. Four hikers stood at the edge of the cliff overhead, and even from a distance I could see sweat on their faces. I watched them swat at flies and could almost feel the burden of their heavy packs. We were separated by 30 feet, but we might as well have been gazing at each other through the looking glass.

I was bug free, enveloped in the cool breath exhaled by Lake Superior, no pack pressing against my sweaty back. With paddle in hand I could easily explore the caves and crannies in the sheer walls of enduring sandstone, or I could pull ashore and wander miles of dunes and beach, following one of the forest trails inland if I chose.

We said nothing to each other, as if the gulf between our experiences was too great to bridge. But in that momentary tableau, I realized that it was me who was getting the full lakeshore experience.

Contact: Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, P.O. Box 40, Munising, MI 49862; (906) 387-3700.

Where Else To Get Your Fix Some places are best experienced from a watery vantage point. Here are three destinations suitable for paddlers of novice and intermediate ability:

Everglades National Park: This place is more water than land. Good canoe trails, some outfitted with camping platforms called chickees, include the short Noble Hammock loop and the park-spanning Wilderness Waterway. Winter is the best season because bugs are few, the weather is cool, and migratory birds are in residence. Contact: Everglades National Park, 4001 State Rd. 9336, Homestead, FL 33034; (305) 242-7700;

Upper Missouri National Wild & Scenic River: Here you'll find about 150 miles of easy paddling through scenic Missouri Breaks country. You'll also find desert bighorn sheep, white pelicans, and loads of hiking potential. Contact: Bureau of Land Management, Lewistown District Office, Airport Rd., Lewistown, MT 59457; (406) 538-7461.

Labyrinth and Stillwater Canyons on the Green River: There are almost 125 river miles without a significant rapid between Green River, Utah, and Spanish Bottom at the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers. Plus the hiking and camping are absolutely incredible. Contact: Bureau of Land Management, 125 South 600 West, Price, UT 84501; (435) 636-3622. Canyonlands National Park, River District, 125 West 200 South, Moab, UT 84532; (801) 259-7164;

My legs felt like wet noodles, my lungs like balloons on the verge of popping, and I had the mother of all headaches.

All in all, I never felt better.

I was a mere 300 vertical feet from the summit of Mt. Rainier, the third highest peak in the Lower 48, and even though my body was complaining, my spirit was triumphant and soaring higher than the peak in front of me. Since 4:30 a.m. my four teammates and I had been toiling up the steep, glaciated shoulder of the hulking mountain. The morning was a blur of adrenaline-tinged thoughts, sounds, and feelings: the sun rising over the Cascades, painting the blue glacier a warm yellow; the reassuring crunch of crampons biting into the snow; the crevasse, three-stories deep, I shakily stepped over. The gentle but persistent tug on my harness threaded through it all and kept reminding me to keep a steady pace.

As we neared the summit we climbed into the gut of a blizzard. The cold grew even more intense, and so did the wind and the noise. The mountain was rejecting us. As I began my descent, I was angry. So close. All that effort. All that pain. Then, as if walking through a wall, we broke out of the storm. The sun was warm on my face and comforting, and suddenly my legs were strong as a bear's. My mind was clear, sharp, and I felt there was no problem, no dilemma that I couldn't shrug off.

Despite the discomfort, I knew I'd come back and try again. When it comes to aching muscles, ragged lungs, and life's petty problems, there's no better cure than the view from the top.

Contact: Mt. Rainier National Park, Star Route Tahoma Woods, Ashford, WA 98304; (360) 569-2211;

Where Else To Get Your Fix Because of its lung-shriveling altitude (14,411 feet), abundant glaciers (34 square miles of them), and upredictable weather, Rainier is a favored training ground for Everest climbers. Whether you set your sights on Rainier or one of the other equally challenging peaks listed here, your chances of successfully reaching the top increase with the amount of time you can spend acclimatizing up high.

Mt. Shasta, California: The second highest peak (14,162 feet) in the entire Cascade Range, Shasta is attempted by some 10,000 climbers every year, with about 3,500 signing the summit register. Contact: Mt. Shasta Ranger District, 204 West Alma St., Mt. Shasta, CA 96067; (916) 926-4511.

Mt. Baker, Washington: At 10,781 feet, this heavily glaciated dormant volcano is the highest of the Pacific Northwest's North Cascades range, and one of the most popular peaks due to its easy accessibility. Contact: Mt. Baker Ranger District, 2105 State Route 20, Sedro-Woolley, WA 98284; (360) 856-5700.

Colorado Fourteeners: The 54 peaks in Colorado over 14,000 feet offer widely varying challenges, all different from the climbs offered in the Cascade mountains. Some of these are "walk-ups," while others demand bona fide climbing skills. Contact: Colorado Mountain Club, 710 10th St., #200, Golden, CO 80401; (303) 279-3080;

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